Over the weekend at Elliott Bay Books I examined a copy of Rachel Cusk’s Coventry, a collection of essays by the English writer of the Outline trilogy. I read and enjoyed the first two books (Outline and Transit), but was hesitant to read her non-fiction because the open secret was that the trilogy was a thinly-veiled form of autobiography. As much as I enjoyed her writing and her observations, buying an “official” non-fiction book of hers would seem to endorse something that has irked me since my grad-school days: autobiography written as fiction.
There has always been and is always going to be autobiography in fiction. It is impossible to eliminate the “I” and everything that goes into making that “I” in any novel—sci-fi, fantasy, romance, mystery, et al. And I am not suggesting that Cusk simply took her own experiences and transported them to her fiction. In fact she didn’t. Instead she took the lives of other people, mainly women, she knew directly or had heard about, and put them to paper. Other contemporaries like Karl Ove Knausgard, among others, have drawn mainly from their personal experiences. So why the objection? Great writing is great writing, and if that means a book sold as fiction is mostly non-fiction, well, who cares? Much of it come down to the dreaded “gut feeling.” For some, including yours truly, there’s something off-putting about writers telling stories that actually happened to them and converting them into “novels.”
That brings me back to grad school. Keeping in mind I did not attend the Iowa Writers Workshop—I went to Sonoma State University, a tiny liberal arts college in California—I nonetheless had high standards for a creative writing program at the graduate level. Back then I had a purist vision of crafting fiction. I wanted to invent nearly everything: characters, stories, plots, situations, locations. I did think there was a difference between autobiographical fiction like Rachel Cusk’s and, say, the fiction of Thomas Pynchon. Creativity is required in both instances, but to me there was a difference between “true” fiction and autobiographical fiction.
To that end, at that point in my “career” I had written several screenplays, and I had consciously avoided anything that had actually happened to me. While I could not avoid basing characters on people I knew, and I set scenes in actual places, my own life was completely absent. Of course our imaginations are unlimited, and I am not suggesting I had such a command of mine that I did not need to borrow real-life situations. Nor am I saying that I had to work harder than other writers simply because I made more up than they did.
Looking back I see that I was being a snob. A story isn’t better or worse because it is “original” or not. After all, “original” and “good” do not always go together. But what possessed me to be so narrow? Most of it comes from one seminar: a creative writing seminar with 19 others. It was as serious as you could get at a small liberal arts school. We all wanted to be writers at that point, and though most of us would not regard it as settling, none us were yet ready to embark on the English teacher career path.
Eventually the time came for us to share our work, and I was genuinely surprised that 18 of the 20 students shared fiction that was based entirely on their own lives. And by “based on,” I mean “things that actually and literally happened.” Still, for all my snobbery, I didn’t see it as an inherent problem. What was a problem, however, was that each of those pieces was boring. (I’m not saying my sample—10 pages of a script—was exciting, either.)
Each work lacked an animating spark—the spark of fiction. I was lucky enough to know people in Los Angeles who could read my scripts and offer feedback, and one of the lessons I learned was the difference between dialogue and conversation. Put simply, dialogue is invented, conversations are real. And real can be boring. If you ever want to fall asleep, don’t bother with melatonin or other sleep aids. Simply record a conversation between yourself and anyone, transcribe it, and read it over. No matter how interesting the conversation is or the person you are having it with, it’s not nearly as interesting as you think.
One student in particular stood out. Their story, while technically good, was not only boring but also lacked “realism.” While I would be stricken to hear a story of mine was boring (this is not how the class described the student’s work, but it’s how we felt), that critique did set off the student; it was that we said it was “unrealistic.” “But this ACTUALLY happened to me! I really was on a train from Budapest to Vienna!” It is not often a train journey in Europe could be boring, but there we were. (Also fascinating: that a completely real-life episode could be deemed “unrealistic.”)
From a certain point of view it’s not only our conversations but also our lives that are dull. I never really considered that until that one class, when 19 otherwise mostly interesting people managed to tell stories that were boring. I was amazed, and still am amazed, at the disconnect between living a good, fulfilling life and writing a good novel about that life. What that student should have done, perhaps, is written a memoir like Rachel Cusk.
Or not. Because Cusk, among others, has distorted this line between memoir and fiction. Cusk has written both forms, but her memoirs have been harshly criticised while her fiction has been mostly praised. Quoted in an article written by Maggie Doherty for The Nation, Cusk says she “had come to view fiction as ‘fake and embarrassing,’ and autobiography as ‘increasingly the only form in all the arts.’”
However, she had also learned her lesson: “I could not do [autobiography] without being misunderstood and making people angry.” The solution? Mix them up. She refused to “expose herself while revealing, with precision and control, the intimate lives of others.” Or, as Doherty says, “[It] is a canny form of auto-fiction, one that occludes the authorial self rather than exposing it.”
This is all well-stated, by Cusk and Doherty, but the question remains: if you want to write a story about your life—whether it’s your own experiences or the experiences of people you know—why not just do memoir? Or just write a literary non-fiction book? Lisa Taddeo, in her book Three Women, has largely done this: taken the lives of three women and woven them into a novel-like story. In fact, most reviews of her book say mostly the same thing: the book “reads like a novel.” Or it reads like In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s masterpiece non-fictional book about a family brutally murdered in Kansas. Or it reads “like a non-fiction novel.” And so on.
Maybe it comes down to something as simple as action. The difference between Three Women and In Cold Blood and Cusk’s fiction, for instance, is that things happen. In contrast, Cusk’s Outline trilogy is like an extended, more cerebral Seinfeld episode: nothing happens. Doherty again:
In [the Outline] novels, Cusk does away with many fictional conventions that might seem ‘fake’—exposition, characterization, rising and falling action—and replaces them with conversation.
Whether or not you prefer conversation to exposition and/or action comes down to the delicate mystery known as taste. What mattered to me in grad school—telling a story that didn’t happen or hasn’t happened yet but maybe could happen—isn’t as important as good storytelling. In my own fiction I still lean heavily on what Milan Kundera says: “To imagine—to dream about things that have not happened—is among mankind’s deepest needs.” In other words, converting those dreams about things that have not happened and turning them into fiction.
But that is a matter of style. A writer has few obligations, but the most basic one—telling a good story, and telling it well, no matter how you choose to tell it—cuts thru all genres. And Cusk, whatever her faults, is a great storyteller.
Which is why I bought Coventry after all.